The year 2021 ended with some sporting news. Or, it would seem like news, yet it sounded old. Was there something new about this news? Something seemed long past-due. It sounded like a symptom of larger issues rather than cause for celebration. Becky Hammon, Assistant Coach of the National Basketball Association (NBA) San Antonio Spurs, was hired as the new coach of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (WNBA) Las Vegas Aces. For anyone to get such a high-level professional coaching job is a cause and time for celebration. It is difficult to secure such incredible professional opportunities and yet, there is something amiss with this hire and with this celebration.
Becky Hammon is certainly qualified for this position. One need only briefly examine Hammon’s background and experience to see why she would be a perfect fit for the Aces. She was a college star. She was a WNBA star. She was a highly coveted Assistant Coach in the NBA, and she played a major role in the development of the young stars on the San Antonio Spurs. Becky Hammon was a rising star in the coaching circuits in the NBA. She got a first-class job in the WNBA. She did not get a Head Coaching job in the NBA.
Through her time with the San Antonio Spurs, Becky Harmon helped coach the young team during the summer league and coached aside the legendary Greg Popovich during the regular NBA season. She had clearly done time and proved herself within this professional setting. Is that all there is to the story? Is there more to be told?
Hell yeah! Becky Hammon interviewed for several Head Coach opportunities in the NBA. With her training and impressive resume, she was sure to get a job soon. However, Harmon was not offered a Head Coaching job in the NBA. The WNBA realized her spectacular skillset and she was hired to coach an incredibly gifted Aces team.
Becky Hammon was an Assistant Coach for a considerable period in the NBA and yet she could not get a Head Coaching job. Former All-Star NBA point guards Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups have gotten premier NBA Head Coach jobs, the first with the Brooklyn Nets and the second with the Portland Trailblazers. They had no previous coaching experience at the professional level. In fact, even the well-respected Head Coach Steve Kerr came straight into a Head Coach position for the Golden State Warriors. Kerr got this job even though he only had a poor run as an executive in the NBA. Why not Becky Hammon? There are some answers to this question.
First, the WNBA has shown itself to be a progressive, social-justice-centered league, and more equitable for women and communities of color than the NBA. One should just watch the incredible documentary 144 by the brilliant Lauren Stowell and Jenna Contreras to understand the incredible impact, commitment, leadership, and sacrifices of WNBA players, coaches, and administrators right after the killing of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Jacob Blake by police officers. They embodied the world-making commitment central to Black Lives Matter, Black Feminism, and racial justice.
While the NBA, the players, and the players’ union did find ways to support Black Lives Matter, that support was not expansive and committed. While the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks in summer 2020 walked off and refused to play a playoff game in support of Black Lives Matter and to protest police shootings of Black people, the WNBA led the charge in powerful ways. In 144, Stowell and Contreras capture how the players organized, conversed, and stood in full commitment against anti-Black racism. The players were leaders willing to sacrifice the season and their income in the name of justice. They would not play in silence. They would not play without a commitment to justice in the broadest terms.
The calls for justice by WNBA players reached all corners of the basketball court and spread to addressing justice in communities across the United States. Even when one of the power brokers in the league, WNBA’s Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler, objected to the WNBA being a site to honor Black Lives Matter, the WNBA players noticed and took action. To address equity and anti-racist practices, the WNBA players played a vital role in the ousting of Loeffler from the political ranks as a senator in Georgia and helped bring forth new ownership of the Atlanta Dream.
Ofcourse there are still areas of growth for the WNBA. Yet we have to acknowledge what is there now. With this kind of progressive foundation in the WNBA, hiring practices are far more equitable than the NBA’s. Becky Hammon’s excellence was recognized and she has been hired to coach the Aces. Women’s leagues offer greater opportunity for women, LGBTQI individuals, and people of color than the men’s professional leagues in the United States. While it might seem that attracting prominent white male coaches would bring greater visibility, which the WNBA has done with Bill Laimbeer, it continues to open more spaces for well-qualified candidates regardless of their social location. Women’s professional leagues, to me, seems like a project based on equity and inclusion that recognizes talents. The pay in the WNBA is not equitable with the NBA. The WNBA sponsors do not have the pull and global recognition as the NBA. The WNBA does not get the same media attention as the NBA. Yet, the WNBA is a site for basketball excellence, opportunity, and recognition of talent and skills—both among players and among coaches.
What does the refusal to hire Becky Hammon to a Head Coach position in the NBA tell us? For one thing, it demonstrates the kinds of politics that govern our professional leagues. Men’s leagues do not operate in neutral territory based on merit and experience. There are racial, gender, and sexual politics. As a result, the NBA continues to be late to the game of justice and equity. Are these leagues and their Head Coach opportunities the final frontier for gender liberation and equity? Major League Baseball’s (MLB) Florida Marlins hired Kim Ng as the first ever woman in the role of general manager in the MLB. There have been other important hires such as Parul Khosla in the National Hockey League (NHL), Kim Davis in the NHL, Samantha Rapoport in the National Football League, and the fantastic former WNBA player Swin Cash in the NBA to manage important matters of diversity and equity for the league.
And yet, we still not have any women as Head Coaches in men’s professional sports. The playing court, field, and arena has been segregated whereby men are assumed to best coach other men. There is a great underrepresentation of women in the coaching profession.[i] Women’s skills, experience, and expertise are refused in a space where maleness is expected to say all that we need to hear. It is also the assumption that men will not listen and respect women as coaches. There is a template for the hiring of coaches, which is unwritten but practiced, that refuses certain groups of people.[ii] The Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University has researched these gaps in hiring practices. With regard to Title IX and women’s collegiate sports, Dr. Scott Brooks states, “the greatest beneficiaries when you’re looking at leadership or coaching have been white men.” He adds, “We talk about second chances, and what we know from the literature is when you’re a person of color, when you’re a white woman, you’re second chances aren’t the same as they would be for white men.” [iii] Thus, our professional leagues operate by politics that go against the philosophy of sport as one based on merit. Clearly the best candidate is not always chosen and not that many opportunities and second chances are given to women and persons of color.
One need look no farther than the case of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He is a Hall of Fame player. He was a key member of the Civil Rights Movement. He conversed with and was informed by Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and other key activists in the African American community. He is a brilliant writer and thinker (see his book On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance). He is respected as a coach to help train players who want to play the position of centers and power forwards in basketball. Abdul-Jabbar wanted to coach in the NBA but was not given that opportunity because of his long historical commitment to social justice. Our leagues do not always take as head coaches the most qualified people.
One’s race and one’s gender impact hiring practices in our professional leagues. Going back to the case of the NBA, we can see the exclusion of certain candidates based on the intersection of race and gender. Nicole Willms, in her wonderful book When Women Rule the Court, highlights the important history of Japanese American women in basketball. Through her engagement with history and the contemporary moment, Willms demonstrates how Japanese American basketball leagues have produced amazing basketball players, such as Natalie Nakase. Nakase was a star player at the University of California, Los Angeles, who, after her playing days, coached the Saitama Broncos in Japan and became the first female Head Coach in the league. She had tremendous success with the team. With her dream to coach at the highest level of men’s basketball, she came back to the United States and started as a video coordinator with the NBA’s Los Angeles’ Clippers in 2012. She is now the Assistant Coach with their developmental league team. Yet, there appear to be, at this current moment, no Head Coach position possibilities for Nakase.
While Hammon’s hiring as a Head Coach is a reason to celebrate, we should be asking for more. Professional sport is a political court, field, and arena. It is important now more than ever to move the needle in men’s professional leagues to the side of progress, equity, and inclusivity. Women’s leagues offer possibilities for radical, collaborative leadership. Women are leading our campaigns across the world and in the United States for justice on so many fronts. Without Head Coaching opportunities in the leagues for women and underrepresented communities, everything else is just charity. As Civil Rights leader James Lawson once said while lecturing at Vanderbilt University, “Charity is not justice.”
The presence of women and persons of color in only certain employment opportunities within the men’s professional leagues is not enough, that is charity. That is not justice. We need to acknowledge the talented and skilled people across our communities. Secure opportunities. Justice is served when we are at the table. Justice is served when we have a voice. Justice is served when we are part of the core of leadership. Justice is at the door and has been knocking for decades. We demand that the professional men’s leagues and professional sport leagues across the globe open their door to women, gender-non-conforming individuals, racial minorities, differently abled persons, and differently classed persons. Playing for social justice is the only way everyone wins. Play ball!
Stanley Thangaraj is an Associate Professor of Anthropology, Gender Studies, and International Studies at the City College of New York (CUNY). His interests are at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship. He studies immigrant and refugee communities in the U.S. South to understand how they manage the black-white racial logic through gender and the kinds of horizontal processes of race-making. His monograph Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, 2015) looks at the relationship between race and gender in co-ethnic-only South Asian American sporting cultures. He has co-edited volumes: Sport and South Asian Diasporas (Routledge, 2014), Asian American Sporting Cultures (NYU Press, 2016), and Leisure, Racism, and National Populist Politics (Routledge, 2021).
Acknowledgments: I am grateful to Scott Brooks, Jeffrey Montez De Oca, Alex Cummings, and Alena Thangaraj for offering reading lists, resources, and offering edits. All errors are mine.
[i] LaVoi, Nicole (ed.). 2017. Women in Sports Coaching. New York. Routledge.
[ii] Walker, N. A. (2018). The labyrinth of exclusion in sport and steps toward developing a culture of inclusion. Sport and Entertainment Review, 4(2).